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Scenario Planning, Climate Futures, and Management Options

The methods described in this report used scenario planning as a useful planning framework for visioning. Scenario planning looks to establish and create plausible narratives for the future, dealing almost entirely with uncertainties. To clarify, scenario planning does not try to predict the future; instead, it seeks to simulate uncertain aspects about the future.

Uncertainty in a planning setting is common, particularly when the planning issues are rooted in natural environmental processes, like water level fluctuations on the Great Lakes. Scenario planning helps navigate these uncertainties because it allows for adaptive planning by plotting different, but reasonable future narratives against each other. Narratives within any given scenario must have a basis in valid economic, social, and environmental data about the present and potential future conditions and should consider multiple variables and perspectives.(1) These narratives about uncertain futures help communities test policies, prioritize strategies, and demonstrate potential future conditions.(2) This gives communities a way to process the future in the present.(3) Unlike a forecast, which concretely lays out a predicted future for a community, scenario planning arranges a palate of reasonable, potential futures from which decisions regarding uncertainties can be made and planned for by a community.

This report utilizes a scenario planning matrix that creates nine discrete scenarios from plausible future narratives regarding climate conditions and growth management options.

Identifying High Risk Flood Areas

The risk assessment mapping methodology developed in this study provides the foundation for the overall technical analysis process of this report. All of the methods ` in this report, in one form or another, rely on the high flood risk assessment mapping component to determine impacts. For the purpose of understanding areas at risk, three climate futures were considered, each increasing in severity: Lucky, Expected, and Perfect Storm. The final scenarios for our study consisted of combinations of climate futures and management options, however, your community may want to define more or fewer climate futures depending of the level of detail and scope of analysis it wants to consider.

Analyzing Potential Impacts on Land Use, Environmental, Fiscal, and Visualization

Land Use Mapping

Building upon the assessment of high risk flood areas, the land use mapping component can be used to determine how a community’s building inventory might be impacted under those risks, both current and future. Mapping a community’s land use variability requires at least three key maps: current land use coverage, future land use coverage as allowed through the community’s existing zoning code, and future land use coverage if spatially restrictive Best Management Practices (BMPs) are implemented to constrain development in and near natural features. The current land use maps show the present position of the community if there were no change to the built environment. The build-out land use maps, using the community’s zoning code as a foundation for each projection, allow a community to envision what future conditions could look like if they were to allow a full build-out according to the current zoning scheme at a 60% build-out efficiency. The BMP land use map limits development to certain areas in order to enable the conservation of natural areas or aid in flood management. This land use map also employs a 60% build-out efficiency.

It is important to emphasize that even though a community’s zoning code allows for a certain build-out, it does not mean that a build-out to that extent will necessarily occur. The build-out projections are not “forecasts,” but merely reasonable possibilities given a community’s zoning code. It is ultimately up to the community to determine its future land use. However, knowing what a full build-out looks like using the current zoning code can help inform those future land use decisions.

Environmental Assessment

Analyzing the different environmental vulnerabilities that a community might expect to encounter under the different climate futures and management options advances future resilient community planning goals. The environmental vulnerability method takes information about what a community currently allows and/or restricts for development – which may or may not be detrimental to natural features – to guide suggested BMPs. These vulnerabilities can be further explored by assessing the different environmental impacts that could occur under each climate future and under each management option. By exploring where the environment is most vulnerable, a community can be more informed in developing future planning documents.

Community Vulnerability Assessment

A community vulnerability assessment is a context-sensitive analysis that can provide a community with valuable information about areas or populations that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Vulnerability includes the exposure of the natural and built landscape to different hazards as well as how sensitive a community or segments of a community are to identified hazards. This assessment can help a community plan for these potential hazards and prioritize climate variability adaptation strategies.

Fiscal Impact Analysis

The purpose of a fiscal impact analysis (FIA) is to quantify the fiscal impacts of different development options under the different climate futures. For this scenario analysis, an FIA can examine the benefits and costs associated with each of the nine scenarios so that communities can make informed choices on how they would like to grow in the future. The FIA not only looks to issues of potentially lost revenue from property taxes but also examines direct hazard impacts such as structural damages. The FIA allows communities to compare the costs associated with each climate future and management option with pre-storm positive fiscal considerations, such as increased property taxes of houses closer to the Great Lakes. This analysis gives communities the ability to determine if the benefits of certain development options outweigh the costs associated with the different climate futures.


Visualizing the impact of climate change can be one of the most beneficial ways to help citizens and public officials understand what a community can expect under different climate futures and growth management options and promote dialogue about a community’s future. Visualization, through aerial imagery, photographs, and data mapping, allows a community to see how each climate future coupled with each management option may impact a community. The power of this method comes in its ability to connect public officials and community members with data so that they can make informed decisions about the future development of their community.


(1) Peterson, G. D., Cumming, G. S., & Carpenter, S. R. (2003). Scenario Planning: a Tool for Conservation in an Uncertain World. Essay 358 Conservation Biology Conservation Biology, 17(2), 358-366.

Harwood, S. A. (2007). Using Scenarios to Build Planning Capacity. In L. D. Hopkins & M. Zapata (Authors), Engaging the future: Forecasts, scenarios, plans, and projects (pp. 135-154). Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

(2) Holway, J., Gabbe, C. J., Hebbert, F., Lally, S., Mathews, R., Quay, R., & Policy, L. I. of L. (2012). Opening access to scenario planning tools. Policy Focus Report (p. 56). Retrieved from

(3) Harwood, S. A. (2007). Using Scenarios to Build Planning Capacity. In L. D. Hopkins & M. Zapata (Authors), Engaging the future: Forecasts, scenarios, plans, and projects (pp. 135-154). Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.